Celebrating the Right to Vote: Books to Read & Coloring Activity

Jamie Allen, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Associate Curator in the Department of Photography at the George Eastman Museum, shares some books and activities you can do at home to celebrate voting and the election.

When the United States was founded in 1776 very few people had the right to vote. Basically, the only citizens who could vote were wealthy, white men who owned property.

In the mid-1800s, women, known as suffragists, began to demand the right to vote. In 1920, they were finally granted this right with the ratification of the 19th Amendment (though many women continued to be prevented from exercising that right, which we’ll get to in a little bit).

This year, we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution with an exhibition that includes photographs that illustrate the history of women’s rights, including photographs of suffragists. You can visit that exhibition in person before March of 2021, or explore it virtually with our 360 tour.

If you want to learn more about the women who participated in the suffrage movement, I suggest checking out:

Bold & Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote written by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and illustrated by Maira Kalman.

I like this book because the author discussed why voting and politics are important in her own life, and how these ten women fought so that women like her could have a voice in United States politics.

One of the people she highlights is Sojourner Truth. An abolitionist and activist, Sojourner Truth recognized the power of photography to connect celebrity likenesses with social messages. By the mid-1800s, collecting photographs of celebrities had become a popular pastime, so Sojourner Truth capitalized on this fact by copyrighting her own image and then selling the photographs to support her speaking tours.

Corydon C. Randall (American, b. Canada, 1846–1907). Sojourner Truth, ca. 1881. Albumen silver print. George Eastman Museum.

This photograph of Sojourner Truth from the museum’s collection has her slogan printed on it. It says: I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.

This slogan was her way of saying that by purchasing a photograph of her, you were directly supporting her speaking tours where she would advocate for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.

While Senator Gillibrand talks about well-known women like Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman in her book, she also highlights some women who are not as well known, such as Jovita Idar, who helped found the League of Mexican Women in Laredo, Texas in 1911, as well as, Ida B. Wells, who became a journalist so that she could tell about her experiences as a Black woman in the United States.

Remember how I said that the 19th Amendment didn’t really give all women the right to vote? Well, it wasn’t the first or last time that voting laws changed.

Previous to it, the 15th Amendment had passed in 1870. It prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a US Citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s race, color or previous condition of servitude. Basically, at that time, it made it possible for men who were previously enslaved to vote.

Even after the 15th Amendment and 19th Amendments were both made into law, some lawmakers did not want people of color to vote. So, they made additional laws, typically at the state level, that placed extra burdens on Black Americans when they arrived to vote.

These types of laws made voter discrimination legal, and included things like:

  • Having to pay a tax in order to vote;
  • Having to show identification in order to vote; and
  • Having to take a long and difficult test where you couldn’t get a single question wrong in order to vote!

In addition to that, the law didn’t prohibit other citizens from intimidating or threatening individuals who wanted to vote, so many people simply were too scared to even show up to the polls.

As part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, many people protested these unfair practices, asking for voting equality. As a result, in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was enacted to prohibit racial discrimination in voting.

One book that addresses the Voting Rights Act is:

Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter and Shane W. Evans

I like this book because it traces how voting rights have changed over a long period of time. This book tells the story of a 100-year old woman named Lillian, who walks up a long, steep hill to cast her vote.

The authors based the character on a real-life woman named Lillian Allen. Born in 1908, she was the grand-daughter of formerly enslaved people. Because of this fact, nearly every change that has been made to voting rights in the United States affected her or her family members in some way. The book did a really great job of walking through each of those moments in history, illustrating things such as voter intimidation and discrimination, and highlighting important voices who protested for everyone’s right to vote, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Representative John Lewis.

In 2008, the real-life Lillian went door-to-door encouraging people to vote in that year’s presidential election, and she cast her own vote for the country’s first Black president, Barack Obama.

Despite all this, there continues to be discrimination and changes in the law.

As recently as 2013, the Supreme Court decided to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act, allowing states to change their voting laws without the federal government’s approval. Several states immediately changed their laws to include things like “voter ID laws.” Since it is often more difficult for poor and elderly people to obtain state-issued IDs, these laws affect many American’s basic rights to vote.

Over the 244 year history of the United States, voting rights laws have changed many times, and each time people have felt that the laws were unequal, they spoke out!

Waldemar F. C. Thode (American, b. Denmark, 1864–1946). Photo postcard (Katherine Jamieson, left, and Mary Carnell, right), ca. 1915. Gelatin silver print. George Eastman Museum, gift of 3M Foundation, ex-collection Louis Walton Sipley.

The George Eastman Museum’s collection includes lots of cool things that have helped me to learn about the history of voting rights, including two postcards that are caricatures of women photographers who were strong supporters of the suffrage movement. You can find coloring pages based on them at our website. After you print them out and color them, you can collage in a photograph of your own face to show off your own voting pride!

Download the coloring pages here!

Thanks for joining me today. I hope you feel inspired to learn more about the history of voting in the United States, and why everyone should have the right to vote!!



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